I read about the Cognitive Revolution in Sapiens, a sciency-weincy book by Yuval Noah Harari. Precursive to the Agrarian Revolution, this was when Homo Sapiens first, through a random set of events, realised their consciousness. They had thoughts, and ideas which could be implemented.
“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
― Yuval Noah Harari
In a world of The Eight Thresholds of Increasing Complexities, and the Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can ever go wrong, will go wrong.”) it is no surprise that what we call Artificial Intelligence looks to be the next stage of evolution in the Darwinian The Tree of Life theory.
Nowhere else in recent sci-fi has this been more excellently interpreted, than in 2015’s Ex Machina.
Caleb (a delightfully naive Domhall Gleeson) wins a competition in his office and gets to visit the too-cool-for-life Nathan (Oscar Isaac nailing the child prodigy look) in his reclusive estate. There, he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander at her unflinching unblinking best yet), a real sentient being, but not altogether human.
Caleb has to use The Turing Test (The Turing test was developed by Alan Turing in 1950, to measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human) and figure out how advanced Ava’s cognitive abilities really are. Their interactions result in some of the most interesting parts of the film.
Science writer and broadcaster Dr Adam Rutherford has a degree in evolutionary biology. Advanced neuroscientist Professor Murray Shanahan is an expert in cognitive architecture, with a particular fascination with how consciousness might be recreated artificially.
So it probably isn’t surprising that Alex Garland turned to these brilliant scientists in the early days of writing his directorial debut Ex Machina, to make sure that the ideas he was exploring – regarding human-level intelligence in robots – had some basis in reality.
Along with the Biblical names, throw in a few quotes by Oppenheimer from Bhagavad-Gita just before the first ever atomic bomb had been detonated during World War II at the Trinity Test (A sombre Nathan declares “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”) and the chilling effect of a Jackson Pollock painting is enough to bring in the art to this psychologically dramatic film.
The passing reference to Edward Snowden and his protest against the Governmental Big Brother in the age of the Internet, in the form of Bluebook – technically machine learning- was not to be missed either. The past two decades have seen the greatest progress in human connaissance but we are still yet to grapple with the repercussions.
We have not even begun to seriously understand what an Ava could do for or to our world. If a human brain is uploaded into a computer system and then, is terminated, does it count as murder? Will the sentience getting imparted to computers mean a new hierarchy and divide in humans and these metahumans?
Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner based on Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick came close to answering only a few of these questions. So did the Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick collaboration on 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL is a sentient computer (or artificial general intelligence) that controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft and interacts with the ship’s astronaut crew.
These prophetic depictions of AI in no way, can diminish the fascination the subject holds. Just as interestingly, Ava, empowered and humanised by her intellectual consciousness, is our future only ten years away.